Monday, May 16, 2005

Blood on their hands 

Even if true, it was unbelievably irresponsible for Newsweek to have published the "toilet Koran" story. That they published it on the basis of an anonymous source in the middle of war in which disinformation has figured prominently is almost beyond comprehension. Are the editors completely ignorant of the world? Or do they want to sabotage America's war effort? Is there a third, more benign explanation?

UPDATE: Juan Cole points out that Newsweek's "retraction" really isn't a retraction.
Isikoff's source, in other words, stands by his report of the incident, but is merely tracing it to other paperwork. What difference does that make? Although Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita angrily denounced the source as no longer credible, in the real world you can't just get rid of a witness because the person made a minor mistake with regard to a text citation. It is like saying that we can't be sure someone has really read the Gospels because he said he read about Caiaphas in the Gospel of Mark rather than in the Gospel of John.

Newsweek has, in other words, confirmed that the source did read a US government account of the desecration of the Koran.

In this view of the world, Newsweek remains credible. But that does not mean that the report is responsible. As I wrote at the top of the post, Newsweek should not have published the Koran desecration story it even if it is true.

UPDATE: Chapati Mystery (via Rezwanul) has an excellent discussion of the importance of the Koran to Muslims, and the subtle differences within the Muslim world in the protests over allegations of its desecration (echoing a point I made in the comments).
Why is the tearing or flushing of a copy of Qur'an such grievous offense? For Muslims, Qur'an is not a compilation of reports about God by prophets or disciples, but the exact, direct and inviolable speech of God. Singlevoiced and unidirectional, it is the suprahistorical word of God. The sanctity and sacredness of Qur'an transcends its physicality while at the same time is contained within it. A Muslim dare not even touch it without ritual purity.

But, there are still some differences that need elaborating. The Afghanis and Pakistanis are burning and dying in the streets while the Saudis are merely expressing their "ire". Explanation lies in the difference in the treatment of the "book" vs. the "text" between Arabia and South Asia. In South Asia, the physical Qur'an becomes a holy relic - to be placed in a scented and clean spot above head; to be handled with veneration and respect. In Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, such veneration is frowned upon and they are apt to treat it just as a special book.

This regional difference may explain why Afghanis reacted violently, and the Iraqis have not reacted.

UPDATE (Monday night): Newsweek has now actually retracted the story.


By Blogger Marc, at Mon May 16, 04:02:00 AM:

Where was the outrage when Muslims used the Bible as toilet paper?


By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon May 16, 06:40:00 AM:

This is a cross-post of a comment I left over on your blog, Marc.

I have a somewhat different point of view on this. My opinion is that it was appalling for Newsweek to report this even if it is true. The consequences were bound to be disastrous. You might as well report the plans for making a roadside bomb.

Christianity and Islam regard their scriptures -- the Christian Bible and the Koran -- differently. For Christians, the Bible is the product of the human mind. Moses and various prophets wrote it. That does not mean that it isn't true, but it is open to interpretation and, more importantly, translation. A physical Bible is not, as a matter of theology, particularly sacred to Christians. It is akin to a crucifix -- sure, you want to show it respect, but if something happens to a Bible it isn't the end of the world.

Muslims, however, believe that The Koran is the product of Allah. Mohammed was, in effect, "channeling" Allah when the Prophecies spilled forth. As a result The Koran, for example, is not, as a matter of religious doctrine, susceptible to translation into languages other than Arabic. English translations usually have a title that reads "The meaning of the Holy Koran" or something similar. For Muslims, the physical Koran is an inherently holy object because it transcribes the literal words of Allah. Disrespecting a Koran is really bad.

That, I think, is the reason why the outrage here is assymetrical. That and the more obvious point that when Muslims get outraged as a group, they don't act like student demonstrators in Madison or Ann Arbor. Theirs is a violent part of the world, and people often die.  

By Blogger ali, at Mon May 16, 10:59:00 AM:

i posted a bit of a bitchy comment on that linked blog entry, and then moved along to your site. must say, i'm rather pleasantly surprised. i feel like the bullshit that spews from the political blogsphere tends to spew a bit higher from the right side than the left (though it spews indeed from both sides). but what i've read of your blog is definitely a step up, logic-wise.

i think that you make an excellent point when you criticise newsweek for having "published it on the basis of an anonymous source in the middle of war in which disinformation has figured prominently." across the board, the corporate media has a disturbing propensity to throw inflammatory stuff out there to boost circulation, with tragically limited fact-checking. this is a problematic tendency, no matter where you sit on the political spectrum. especially in situations where they know that they're likely to be deceived, the onus should always be on the news source to confirm the validity of their sources.

but i disagree that they're altogether wrong to print it all... i think that if it's true, it should be put out there, and the reaction be damned.

how about if it was a bunch of muslims in a mosque burning crucifixes and torturing captive priests... would you say that information should be suppressed in order to prevent anti-muslim riots?

food for thought.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Mon May 16, 11:09:00 AM:

It's hard to know where to find the crystal ball that the press could use to determine how their reportage will be reacted to. When dealing in facts, the press must leave a lot up to its readership. The press is not responsible for the reactions to the facts presented. And, when the source is a Pentagon official, one might reasonably assume that the statement is a fact.

If Newsweek called the U.S. military a horde of Islam-haters and then built on that opinion with facts, then their opinion / conclusion could be called into question, but the facts would remain the same.

Where, in your opinion, does the duty of a free press to provide factual information to its discriminating reader end and its duty (?!) to stand up for its home nation. That is, when do you start censoring? On the flip side, when the free press deliberately withholds facts from the public (as in the run-up to the Iraq invasion), is it equally irresponsible?

Tricky questions...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 16, 11:17:00 AM:

Ali, I could not disagree more. As Omar over at Iraq the Model says:

"I'm not trying to justify the riots here; on the contrary, I'm against them but (and correct me if I'm wrong) one must not put matches near gasoline."

What is the news value to Americans if a soldier at Gitmo HAD flushed s few pages of the Koran down the toilet? It's a freakin' book and I do not care, any more than I would if Muslim soldiers tossed part of the Gospels in the sewer. In this nation artists are free to immerse a crucifix in urine, and that isn't dangerous because Xians do not riot and kill artists and the police protecting them. That happy state of peaceful tolerance is well known not to be true in the Middle East vis-a-vis the Koran.

We have soldiers and civilian contractors stationed in Muslim countries trying to win a war on terror and build infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are in harms way, and in places where First Amendment freedoms and religious tolerance are largely foreign concepts; Muslims issue fatwas on such as Salman Rushdie for committing blasphemy against the Koran. They take attacks on their holy book *deadly* seriously.

Further, this is indeed a war involving propaganda and misinformation. What possible news value is there, other than to agitate Muslim extremist to kill and stir up anti-Americanism, even if the Newsweek story were true?


By Blogger Cosmo, at Mon May 16, 11:29:00 AM:


The idea that this 'insult' is some sort of grave transgression and that we should tip toe around the sensibilities of people who demonstrate no tolerance for those of other faiths is preposterous.

The symbols of Chritianity are routinely held up for ridicule and abuse (see: Piss Christ). Those who are offended are dismissed as humorless cranks.

The Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem was occupied by Palestinian gunmen, who trashed the place while holding its clerics hostage. Press coverage was generally sympathetic to the occupiers, and fretted over damage to the Church should the IDF lay seige.

In neither case did those offended by such indignities resort to murderous riots. The day the imams stop calling me an infidel who deserves to die is the day I'll be prepared to listen to Islam's whining "grievances."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 16, 02:39:00 PM:

"Theirs is a violent part of the world, and people often die."

Tigerhawk, your country needs elequent centrists and straight thinking in the worst possible way. Are you a candidate or what? C'mon.

"More Americans Killed By Guns Than By War in the 20th Century"
- http://www.hpjc.org/issues_guncontrol.html

Peace Canadian Dude  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon May 16, 03:02:00 PM:

Peace Canadian Dude! So happy to have you back! I hope you become a regular reader.

I'll take a look at your link later.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 16, 07:12:00 PM:

read this article from antiwar. seems the newsweak information on the koran desecration is old news, and it has been confirmed by multiple sources.


By Blogger ali, at Mon May 16, 07:59:00 PM:


i guess you're right in a way, cosmo and anon. my hypothetical situation is kind of irrelevant just because it's so hypothetical. but it's certainly worthwhile to check with yourself whether your convictions are based in logic, or on a position of power that might conceivably be reversed.

the problem with religion is always when it starts to take itself too seriously. there's a dutch politician whose name evades me at the moment, but she grew up in the sudan in a fundamentalist muslim family, and has since begun denouncing islam as a 'backward' religion, etc. etc. one of her most interesting quotes was that "islam doesn't need your condemnation, it needs its own voltaire." but i suppose that's another topic altogether.

you ask what 'news value' there is in reporting about flushing bits of some ancient b.s. down the john ... and maybe there is none. but how can anyone judge 'news value'? is there even such a thing anymore?

i just think it's foolish to cite this as an example of some sort of bias, whether liberal, anti-american, or otherwise. the media is biased towards what sells, what shocks, and what provokes a reaction (which turns into copies sold and advertising revenue). this is problematic, but this doesn't mean that there's a bunch of liberals in a backroom somewhere plotting to overthrow your country via Newsweek. i really don't think that the editors of said magazine sat down and said "let's agitate Muslim extremist to kill and stir up anti-Americanism." they sat down, like pretty much every other editorial staff does each day, and said, "what hokey, poorly-researched shit can we spit out that will sell copies like mad?"

and, setting censorship aside, the only reasonable way out of a situation like this is some serious regulation in terms of corporate concentration of media ownership and profit orientation. maybe even *gasp* more support for public broadcasting.

all distinctly pinko-hippie-commie ideas... riiiight?  

By Blogger Integr8d, at Mon May 16, 09:02:00 PM:

Ali: Of course you think more b/s spews more from the right. You obviously sit on the left. But the source of the spewing is something you should take into consideration. Possibly, more right-wing b/s spews from the White House. But I'd bet more left-wing b/s comes comes from the media. Question: Where do you get your reports from/about the White House/world, in general?

Agreed, the media is responsible for fact-checking. Should the story prove to be false, that outlet should pay dearly. The reaction be damned, if it's true? Question: What good would've come from it either way?

As far as the burning crucifixes and tortured priestes, you need to look at the reality... And you should take into acct. the reality, when you think about my second question... The reality is that hee haws burning abortion clinics aside, most Christians, today, are not violent people. Should news like that reach them, they'd most likely pray about it and talk about it in Church. But to answer your question, I'll restate my second question: What good would come from it?

Screwy: "When dealing in facts, the press must leave a lot up to its readership." Fine. But the press doesn't just report the facts. They scatter fact w/ opinion. READ an article. Discern what is fact and what is opinion. Note: Any adjective or adverb, reported by the media, is an opinion.

"The press is not responsible for the reactions to the facts presented." Fine. Just make sure they're facts, the whole facts, and they're presented in accurate order.

"If Newsweek called the U.S. military a horde of Islam-haters and then built on that opinion with facts, then their opinion / conclusion could be called into question, but the facts would remain the same." There's no argument that facts are facts. But the facts mixed w/ individual/collective opinion could lead the reader to the wrong end result. Keep in mind that the end result of the facts could be completely different than the opinion supported by facts. Either way, you have to respect that opinion based on fact can lead to very dangerous results.

"Where, in your opinion, does the duty of a free press to provide factual information to its discriminating reader end and its duty (?!) to stand up for its home nation." Fortunately, for you, you live in a country that requires none of this. You're free to hate the country, people, and government as much as you'd like. It's a far cry from where the Iraqi people were a few years ago. And you are free to write whatever you like. To answer your question about censorship; You censor when either the law requires it or your readership base demands it. In other words, if people aren't reading your stories, in the spirit of good business, you might think about changing/censoring your stories. Obviously, Newsweek knew their liberal base would eat this story up and fuel the fire against anything conservative. By the way, that's an opinion. But one that is based on a high percentage of probability.

Canadian Dude: "More Americans Killed By Guns Than By War in the 20th Century". I'm sure the quote is specifying Americans killed by guns in America. I'm not sure about that fact. But it's probably incorrect. The world likes to view us as the 'wild west'. They like to think that we are a bunch of gun wielding cowboys. This all goes back to the media and the way they report things. As far as guns in America and deaths related to them, it doesn't surprise me that we have high rates. Every time I turn on the evening news, it's "Local man shot by gang; Bank robbery ends w/ 12 shot and killed; Trucker shot by disgruntled highway driver." It's no wonder people buy guns. It's no wonder guns get used. The media almost enjoys keeping us in fear. Now consider what would happen if the only thing that was reported on was scientific/medical achievement, heroic feats, ecomonic progress, and good will. What would happen to the attitude of this country? Do you think more guns would be bought? Do you think people would even feel that they needed guns? I hypothesize that most of the anger, violence, and resentment, in this country, is a direct reaction to the media and the stories it chooses to tell us represent the state of our nation and the way in which they choose to present them.

Oh Screwy: The Pentagon official, for all we know, is the Pentagon's official janitor.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue May 17, 12:00:00 AM:

Integr8d, how old are you? I'm 38.

I don't think Americans are cowboys.

I found this pretty insightful. Just skip the first 6:21 minutes:



By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue May 17, 09:01:00 AM:

"Contrary to White House spin, the allegations of religious desecration at Guantanamo published by Newsweek on May 9, 2005, are common among ex-prisoners and have been widely reported outside the United States. Several former detainees at the Guantanamo and Bagram prisons have reported instances of their handlers sitting or standing on the Koran, throwing or kicking it in toilets, and urinating on it. Prior to the Newsweek article, the New York Times reported a Guantanamo insider asserting that the commander of the facility was compelled by prisoner protests to address the problem and issue an apology.

One such incident (during which the Koran was allegedly thrown in a pile and stepped on) prompted a hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees in March 2002. Regarding this, the New York Times in a May 1, 2005, article interviewed a former detainee, Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi, who said the protest ended with a senior officer delivering an apology to the entire camp. And the Times reports: "A former interrogator at Guantanamo, in an interview with the Times, confirmed the accounts of the hunger strikes, including the public expression of regret over the treatment of the Korans." (Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt, "Inquiry Finds Abuses at Guantanamo Bay," New York Times, May 1, 2005.)

The hunger strike and apology story is also confirmed by another former detainee, Shafiq Rasul, interviewed by the UK Guardian in 2003 (James Meek, "The People the Law Forgot," Dec. 3, 2003). It was also confirmed by former prisoner Jamal al-Harith in an interview with the Daily Mirror (Rosa Prince and Gary Jones, "My Hell in Camp X-Ray," Daily Mirror, March 12, 2004)."  

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